The dog days of summer are most certainly in full swing here in the Maryland and Pennsylvania areas, and right about now, we are grateful for our Air-Conditioning (A/C) systems. We rely on these systems to not only cool our homes during the heat of the summer season, but they also help to dehumidify the air inside our homes as an added benefit. Lately, we have been informing our home inspection clients when they have Air-Conditioning systems that use a particular and very common chemical as the refrigerant, often known as R22. R twenty-what, you ask?
What the heck is R22 anyway?
R22 is a refrigerant chemical used in many Air-Conditioning systems, including Heat Pump systems, which, in the case of an Air-Conditioning system or a Heat Pump system operating in cooling mode, transfers the latent heat from the air inside your home into the R22 refrigerant which then carries the heat to the outdoor unit of your system to be expelled into the outside air. By removing heat from your indoor air, it effectively cools your indoor air and thus makes it more comfortable for you and your family in your home. As the warm, moist air inside your home is blown across the R22-laden evaporator coils inside your system, that air quickly drops in temperature and reaches its dew point, causing the moisture in the air to condense into liquid form on the surfaces of the coils. Your system then collects the liquid water and expels it, thereby dehumidifying your indoor air as it cools it, too.
R22 is commonly called “Freon”, and is another designation for the refrigerant chemical HCFC-22 as noted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). R22 is but one type of chemical refrigerant used in Air-Conditioning/Heat Pump systems. R22 was first introduced in the 1950s and became the leading A/C refrigerant used in the residential Heating/Cooling industry. An newer alternative to R22/Freon is R410a/Puron.
So, what’s the problem with R22?
Over time, the world’s scientists began to realize that certain chemicals were aiding in the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer, which protects life on earth from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the Sun. Without ozone, life on Earth would not exist as we know it. So, obviously, chemicals that deplete the ozone layer are not a good thing when they are released into the atmosphere. This can happen when A/C systems develop coolant leaks and can also happen if technicians are not careful when servicing these systems. The U.S. EPA, in cooperation with other agencies and groups around the world, initiated a phase out of many ozone-depleting chemicals as part of an international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol. R22, unfortunately, is one of the worst of these chemicals. As part of the Montreal Protocol, in 2003, the phase-out of R22 production and imports began. In 2010, the production and import of R22 started being reduced, but the servicing of current/existing systems using R22 is still acceptable if there is an available supply of R22. The production and import of R22 has been continually reduced by law each year since. The EPA has set a deadline of January 1, 2020, when all production and import of R22 will be eliminated. Only recycled/reclaimed R22 refrigerant will be available to service existing air conditioners that use R22 after 2020. If you understand economics, you probably are already realizing reading this article that low supply and high demand will very likely drive up the price of R22 refrigerant. This is already been coming true in recent years, and most likely it will only worsen after 2020 arrives.
Will the Phase-out of R22 affect me?
The classic “it depends” answer applies here. If your air conditioner was manufactured and installed before 2010, your system MAY have R22 as the refrigerant. You can always have a home inspector or HVAC technician assist you with checking your system for you, but you can also check to see if your system uses R22 yourself. Locate the outdoor unit (condenser cabinet) for your A/C or Heat Pump system – it will be a large cabinet with a fan inside that cycles on and off when your indoor unit turns on to cool your home. BE CAREFUL around the unit – the fan can be VERY dangerous if you are not careful! On the outdoor unit, there should be a manufacturer’s label/plate/sticker that has various information printed on it for your particular unit. Most will have a model number, serial number, and other technical system information. Often on this label/plate/sticker, it will identify the type of coolant chemical the system was designed to use (and is likely using presently unless an HVAC technician has performed a system conversion).
What do I do if my system uses R22?
So, what if you have a system that uses R22? On January 1, 2020, it will become much more difficult (and expensive) to get R22. As a result, repairing older R22 systems will become very expensive when the repair requires adding refrigerant to the system. Except for some simple electrical issues, many types of Air Conditioning system repairs require recharging refrigerant. It will likely become cost-prohibitive to try to maintain R22 systems before long. Given this information, now is the time to figure out your plan for replacing the system.
In general, owners of R22 air conditioners will have 3 choices:
- Do nothing until your system needs an expensive repair. Obviously, you will want to budget for the repair/replacement so that you are not caught off-guard with a heavy bill when your system breaks. Keep in mind that here in the Maryland/Pennsylvania area, A/C and Heat Pump systems last an average of about 12-15 years. If your system is nearing the end of its useful life, the odds are you may need that budget sooner than later.
- Retrofit (or convert) your old R22 equipment to use R410a refrigerant (if it is even an option depending on make/model). You many hear the term or phrase “drop-in” when talking to HVAC Sales Representatives or Technicians. “Drop-in” is referring to retrofitting the system, which even when done properly can cost the homeowner as much or possibly even more money than buying a new unit that uses R410a. Be careful of retrofit options – it is not a simple matter of removing the R22 and then refilling with R410a. The chemicals operate at different pressures and require different system parts to operate reliably and this may require replacing many expensive components in your system to do it properly. Additionally, if you have any warranty left on your system, it may be voided if retrofitted.
- Replace your system proactively. Some people would rather be proactive than reactive. Purchasing a new upgraded AC system will not only provide you with a system that uses R410a, but it will also probably benefit most homeowners in better dependability, energy efficiency, and long-term comfort and reliability.
The old R22 refrigerant, although still very common and installed in A LOT OF EXISTING SYSTEMS, is fast approaching the end of its life here in the United States due to its damaging affects on the Ozone layer. Now that you know what it is and how to check your system, if you have an older A/C or Heat Pump system that uses R22, you are also now aware that you may be facing some expensive future repair bills should your system need servicing (and eventually it will). We recommend that you check your system and then get a plan in place now so that you are not stressed when your system needs refrigerant servicing in the future. You can certainly continue to use your old R22-based system and keep your fingers crossed that it continues to work for years to come, but you would be wise to budget for a new 410a-based system in the future, and the sooner, the better.
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